The Two Faces of Tom Daschle. (Washington's Week)

Article excerpt

There's something in the way that Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) cocks his head that has many politicos wondering if he's a straight shooter. That may be because Washington insiders are starting to notice that Daschle seems to be trying to coexist on two different ideological planes. Some are wondering how Daschle's constituents back in South Dakota countenance his two faces. Will the real Tom Daschle please stand up?

"He's practically schizophrenic," a GOP aide says of Daschle, noting that the Senate majority leader supports $20 billion in unauthorized year-end spending even as he protests deficits. What's more, he publicly supported an economic-stimulus package while privately doing everything possible to ensure that no such package ever saw the carpet on the Senate floor.

In response, waspish conservative groups are planning to introduce the real Sen. Daschle to his constituents through radio and TV spots. Contrasting his "heartland talk in South Dakota and his liberal talk in Washington" will be illuminating to all, suggests a conservative operative. To demonstrate how out of step Daschle is with his home state, the aide recalls a South Dakota referendum to abolish the "death tax" that passed with 80 percent of the vote. Even so, Daschle continues to block its repeal back in Washington.

Most pundits agree that Sept. 11 has changed the political mood of the country, but no consensus has yet developed about what this will mean in the November elections. At several Washington gatherings throughout the week, seers on both the left and the right threw up their hands. With Bush's approval ratings shouldering the ozone layer and more than 60 percent of Americans favorable toward Congress, the Washington wiseacres agree that now is not the time for discordant politics.

So what do the experts make of Daschle's increasingly partisan tone? Republican operatives quietly are cheered by Daschle's noisy leftward march, which they are convinced the public finds annoying, and because the Senate majority leader finally is showing his true colors. At a Washington policy forum, for example, Daschle unveiled his strategy of trying to blame the ailing economy on President George W. Bush. "But September 11th and the war aren't the only reasons the surplus is nearly gone," he crowed. "They're not even the biggest reasons. The biggest reason is the tax cut."

As the speculation mounts that Daschle is positioning himself to seek the nomination of the Democratic Party for president in 2004, Washington observers predict that he will have a difficult time reconciling his South Dakota persona with any imaginable nomination strategy. Complicating matters for Daschle is that he's up for re-election to the Senate in 2004. Unlike 2000 vice presidential candidate Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), Daschle will not have the luxury of dropping back into the safety of his Senate seat should he fall short of his national ambition.

When Daschle blamed Bush for a tax cut passed to remedy the ailing economy inherited from Bill Clinton, the majority leader's strategy of juxtaposing himself against the president became obvious. But this has left members of his party wondering what has come over their usually graceful leader. Especially flummoxed were the 12 Democratic senators who voted for Bush's $1.35 trillion tax cut, many of whom immediately distanced themselves from the Daschle eruption. Such Democratic stalwarts as Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Robert Torricelli of New Jersey were quick to note the perversity of the Daschle approach. A spokesman for Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) said he "can't imagine that she would advocate delaying or repealing" the tax cut as suggested by Daschle.

"Maybe it's at a level my brain can't reach," Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) remarked. "How do you have as one of your highest priorities to re-elect the moderate Democrats from South Dakota, Montana and Missouri on one hand, then on the other hand blame them for voting for a tax cut that he [Daschle] maintains has created this recession? …